It may be the dog days of August, but elections never sleep. Today in Mississippi, voters head to the polls to pick their nominees for state and legislative offices, including governor and lieutenant governor. And Ohioans will vote on a ballot measure that would raise the threshold for passing future constitutional amendments (such as one on abortion rights this November) from a simple majority to 60 percent (my colleague Nathaniel Rakich has more on the Ohio vote).
Mississippi’s contest for governor will offer little primary drama because Republican Gov. Tate Reeves and Democratic Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley are all but guaranteed to face each other in November. But their impending clash will test how Republican-leaning Mississippi is, as Reeves isn’t especially popular and Presley has about as good a résumé as Democrats could hope for in the Magnolia State. However, Republicans do have one high-profile primary to sort out: a race for the state’s powerful lieutenant governor post between an establishment-aligned incumbent and a right-wing populist state senator.
Can Presley end Democrats’ statewide blues?
First elected in 2019, Reeves is seeking a second term as governor, but his tenure hasn’t exactly attracted rave reviews. Morning Consult’s polling in the second quarter of 2023 found that he was tied for the dubious title of least popular governor in the country with a +6-point net job approval rating (48 percent of registered voters approved of him and 42 percent disapproved). Such middling ratings have been a regular thing, as Reeves has never surpassed 52 percent approval in Morning Consult’s surveys. Back in January, 57 percent of voters told Siena College/Mississippi Today that they’d prefer someone else to be the next governor, while just 33 percent backed Reeves.
One vulnerability for Reeves is a far-reaching scandal involving the misuse of federal welfare funds. From 2016 to 2019, the Mississippi Department of Human Services misspent more than $77 million, much of it to help fund pet projects for wealthy individuals. Reeves hasn’t been directly implicated, but figures close to him have come under scrutiny. Last year, Mississippi Today uncovered text messages from 2019 that suggested then-Gov. Phil Bryant, whom Reeves served under as lieutenant governor, had advised former NFL quarterback Brett Favre on getting millions for a volleyball arena at Southern Mississippi University, Favre’s alma mater and where his daughter played volleyball. Additionally, a personal trainer who worked with Reeves and other Mississippi politicians received $1.3 million of those funds through a nonprofit whose operators have since admitted to defrauding the government.
With this hanging over his head, Reeves will face Presley, who may be an unusually strong Democratic candidate. Presley, who I’m mandated by the journalism deities to report is a second cousin of Elvis Presley, is completing his fourth term representing the northern third of Mississippi on the state’s three-member Public Services Commission. This makes him the only remaining Democrat in Mississippi’s executive branch (albeit his is not a statewide office). And Presley has won all four elections for his post by double digits (he was unopposed in 2019) despite his district’s sizable GOP lean: In 2020, then-President Donald Trump carried Presley’s seat by 23 percentage points. Presley’s moderate image — he describes himself as “pro-life” — and focus on less divisive issues like expanding broadband access have undergirded his success. Along those lines, Presley has made tax reductions a central feature of his campaign, including an ad in which he cuts a car in half with a metal saw to talk up his proposal to halve the state’s license plate tax.
Yet despite Reeves’s challenges and Presley’s strengths, the Republican has the upper hand in the little polling we have. Now, some of the polls come from the campaigns themselves, which historically tend to overstate how well their candidate is doing. The only recent survey was an early July poll by OnMessage for Reeves’s campaign that found him well ahead, 49 percent to 32 percent. Conversely, an April survey by Impact Research for Presley’s campaign found Reeves ahead by only 3 points, 47 percent to 44 percent. The last nonpartisan survey, an April poll from Siena College/Mississippi Today, essentially split the difference by finding Reeves up 49 percent to 38 percent.
Beyond the polls, Reeves also has a huge financial edge. As of Aug. 1, Reeves had $9.4 million in the bank to Presley’s $1.5 million. Now, Presley has spent a bit more at this point, including at least $250,000 on a fresh ad campaign seeking to connect Reeves to the state welfare scandal. But Reeves will likely have more money at his disposal to defend his record, and he has already started running ads pushing back on Presley’s new spot. The governor is also playing to the state’s sizable Republican base on social issues with a new ad highlighting his opposition to transgender women playing women’s sports.
More broadly, the state’s fundamental conditions will make it hard for Presley to break through in 2023. Mississippi has arguably the most racially polarized electorate in the country, as white voters overwhelmingly back Republicans and Black voters almost uniformly support Democrats. Tellingly, one estimate of the 2020 presidential vote from a group of academics using the Cooperative Election Study found that Trump won 82 percent of non-Hispanic white voters in Mississippi and just 13 percent of Black voters — the largest gap between white and Black voters of any state. Overall, 58 percent of Mississippi’s voting-age population is non-Hispanic white and 35 percent is Black, so intense electoral polarization by race continues to give Republicans a straightforward path to victory.
If anything, the last gubernatorial election demonstrates that, even when things go Democrats’ way in Mississippi, it’s very hard to win a gubernatorial election. In 2019, former state Attorney General Jim Hood lost to Reeves by 5 points, even though he had won four straight terms as attorney general (he remains the only Democrat to win a statewide election in Mississippi since the mid-2000s). Meanwhile, Reeves had survived a highly contentious and competitive GOP primary runoff against a more moderate Republican who then refused to endorse him. Additionally, the greater electoral environment looked favorable for Democrats too, as then-President Trump had a low approval rating (though not as low in Mississippi as nationally).
But here in 2023, Presley faces more difficult circumstances than Hood did. Reeves is now an incumbent — they tend to be harder to beat — and he also faces little primary opposition that could spark intraparty turmoil. And Presley also has to contend with having an unpopular Democrat in the White House. The election is about three months away and Presley can’t be written off entirely, but Reeves is clearly favored.
A race to the bottom for second-in-command
Mississippi’s lieutenant governor is more powerful than the No. 2 in most states due to the agenda-setting power it has as president of the state Senate, from which it determines committee assignments for senators and assigns bills to committees. A longtime veteran of Mississippi politics, incumbent Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann is seeking his second term. But state Sen. Chris McDaniel, who has lost two prior races for U.S. Senate, is challenging Hosemann in the GOP primary, precipitating a clash between a conservative establishment figure and a controversial insurgent.
McDaniel has been in the spotlight before, most especially when he famously nearly upended Sen. Thad Cochran in the state’s 2014 Republican primary. McDaniel ran to Cochran’s right, attacking the six-term senator as a creature of Washington and a pork-barrel spender. But McDaniel’s campaign was engulfed by scandal when a group of McDaniel supporters organized a caper to sneak into Cochran’s wife’s nursing home and take photos of her as part of a scheme to claim that Cochran was having an affair. McDaniel denied involvement, but the escapade may have cost him: In the primary, he finished ahead of Cochran but a hair short of a majority, forcing a runoff (Mississippi is one of seven states that requires nominees to win a majority to win a primary). In the runoff, turnout surged and Cochran narrowly defeated McDaniel, aided in part by Black voters, support that prompted McDaniel to unsuccessfully challenge the result. In 2018, McDaniel didn’t come nearly as close to victory, finishing third in the all-party primary in a special election for Senate behind appointed GOP Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith and Democrat Mike Espy (Hyde-Smith won the runoff).
Now running for lieutenant governor, McDaniel has tried to get to Hosemann’s right, too, by claiming the incumbent is insufficiently conservative. He has referred to Hosemann as “Delbert the Democrat” and has used criticisms Hosemann made about Trump while serving as secretary of state as evidence that Hosemann can’t be trusted. For his part, Hosemann has argued that he’s been a steady, conservative hand at the tiller for Mississippi’s state government.
But the race has had its fair share of controversy, too. Perhaps most notably, McDaniel and his allies have argued that Hosemann actually supports abortion rights — a toxic position in a GOP primary — because the lieutenant governor once served as vice president of a women’s health clinic in Jackson. Hosemann has denied the claim, and a former clinic president had previously said Hosemann performed legal services for the clinic before it started providing abortion services, but McDaniel has tried to capitalize on the connection.
Hosemann appears favored to fend off McDaniel on Tuesday, although it’s no certainty. For one thing, Hosemann had spent $3.5 million this year as of Aug. 1 and had $2.1 million left over for the final week of the primary campaign. By comparison, McDaniel had spent only $1.1 million this year and had only about $300,000 in the bank. However, an outside group backing McDaniel had raised almost $900,000 in the month leading up to the primary, and it has run ads claiming Hoseman supports abortion rights. But an early June poll from Siena College/Mississippi Today also found Hosemann leading McDaniel 47 percent to 32 percent, and Hosemann also sported stronger favorability numbers among Republicans than McDaniel. Now, Hosemann was just shy of 50 percent in that poll, which could be important because of the state’s runoff rule. But together, the fundraising and polling suggest McDaniel will really need a surprise to defeat Hosemann.